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Mississippian/Lower Illinois River Valley

At Dickson Mounds people began transitioning to agriculture from their ancestral tradition of foraging around ad 1150 and by ad 1300 were fully committed farmers. Blakey and Armelagos (1985) showed that stress (as measured by enamel hypoplasias) did occur for some infants during the prenatal period and peaked in the month immediately following birth. Children whose teeth showed prior periods of stress before birth tended to live for shorter periods and to die earlier than did those children who did not experience in utero stress (Larsen 1987: 367). Therefore, health of the mother was determined to be an important factor in the health of the newborn infant in terms of health risks and survival in the Mississippian groups transitioning to or having adopted agriculture. Especially at places like Dickson Mounds and the larger ceremonial center of Cahokia, females had to partition their time between taking care of their infants and children and processing maize, which often meant long hours at the grinding stations (Figure 3.5).

For infants in their first year of life, there was a generally low frequency (10%) of anemia (porotic hyperostosis) during the transitional period where farming was not yet the only mode of subsistence, but the frequency rises to 33% in the agricultural period (Goodman et al. 1984).

A diorama of a Cahokia woman grinding maize, an activity that many spent long hours doing to feed their families. By Herb Roe — (own work)

FIGURE 3.5 A diorama of a Cahokia woman grinding maize, an activity that many spent long hours doing to feed their families. By Herb Roe — (own work).

For 1- to 2-year-olds, the rate of anemia for transitional period infants is 21%, and this increases to 47% for the agriculturalists. This is attributed to the benefits of a more varied diet that likely included more animal protein for foraging and transitional groups (Buikstra 1984: 227).

North of the Mississippian/Lower Illinois River Valley region in Ohio near Lake Erie, a large Late-Woodland habitation site (the Libben Site) was excavated that yielded 452 infants and children out of a total sample of 1,327 articulated skeletons. This is a remarkably high number of nonadults in part because of the excavation strategy and the fine mesh screening that was used to recover even the smallest infant bones resulting in a very representative population (Lovejoy et al. 1977). Premature infant bones (two lunar months) representing likely miscarriages were retrieved, making this a quite unique finding for ancient American habitation areas. The Late Woodland period (ad 800—1100) is typically seen as being based on foraging, with little evidence for corn agriculture, and so this site provides a snapshot of life in ancient America prior to the shift to maize cultivation.

The frequency and distribution of porotic hyperostosis lesions indicative of some type of anemic condition were carefully studied using very refined age categories for the site of Libben. For infants between birth and 6 months, none showed evidence of anemia and those infants aged between 6 months and 1 year, about one-quarter had signs of anemia at the time of death. However, for infants aged between 1 and 3, the frequency of anemia jumps to 72% with most cases (88%) showing active (not healed) lesions (Mensforth et al. 1978: 29). These same infants, when examined for nonspecific infectious responses on the long bones (periosteal reactions), showed that half of them also were experiencing that health problem and that half of those showed active cases (no healing; Mensforth et al. 1978: 34). The distribution of these combined lesions showed that there was a synergistic interaction between infants being initially exposed to nonspecific infections and this could be anything from staph (Staphylococcus) (Figure 3.6) and strep (Streptococcus) to rickets and scurvy. Thus, infants were being exposed to life conditions that caused an anemic response. These mortality rates suggest that the ages between birth and 2 to 3 years were crucial in avoiding infectious pathogens as well as conditions resulting from dietary problems or the poor absorption of nutrients. This could be due to diarrhea and other childhood illnesses that move food too quickly through the system for nutrients to be absorbed.

This study from an earlier period than the Mississippian where the subsistence was more diverse and likely had more animal protein and woodland plants shows that infants were still quite at risk for being exposed to everyday bacterial pathogens that cause a systemic response and to anemia that can be caused by many things including diet and complications from other childhood symptoms of poor health such as diarrhea. Lovejoy and colleagues (1977) projected that there was likely a mean family size of 3.8 and that life expectancy at birth was 20 years (which is well within normal for many precolonial populations in ancient America). The survivorship data for all subadults showed that the highest rate of

Staphylococcus aureus outside a white blood cell

FIGURE 3.6 Staphylococcus aureus outside a white blood cell. This is a very common bacterium that in healthy people usually causes no health problems. However, it can trigger skin infections, respiratory problems, and even food poisoning. By National Institutes of Health (NIH). Credit: NIAID via Flickr, by/4.0/.

infant and child mortality was during birth to 3 years, where it has been estimated that about two-thirds of them died by the age of 3 (Mensforth et al. 1978: 44). While some research does show that a foraging and hunting lifestyle was generally better for overall health when compared to later groups who adopted agriculture, this study shows that being born in ancient America was fraught with the possibilities of poor health, which lead to sickness and then death.

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